Today is day 11 of being at home. My work-from-home setup is fairly solid. I like being able to see the garden, and open the window if the weather isn’t too hot, cold, or humid. We have lots of bird feeders so there is almost always activity in the yard. I’ve been enjoying the garden a lot. The bees have been very active on the tropical sage flowers. They overwintered well and came out early. (Our winter wasn’t very pronounced this year.)
We were so young! This is me (in the middle) and Peanut Polley, and Nancy Miller. As I recall, this was in 1976 and the Meyers family was relocating from Hawaii to Laurel, Maryland. We stopped in Yakima to stay overnight with the Polleys. I’ve know Peanut since I was about 11 or so. Her family were missionaries at IPE, a mission station not too far from IME, Kimpese. We went to school together in Kinshasa at TASOK. That is where I met Nancy Miller, another missionary kid. She went on to work in Malawi at an orphanage, and has lots of kids herself. Peanut is a nurse in Washington, and I ended up in Houston.
Here is an all-time classic photo! My brother Dan - relaxing in a wheelbarrow, holding an umbrella to keep off the rain, and reading. I believe he told me that it was either Swiss Family Robinson, or Robinson Crusoe. Either way, I’m sure the story would be even more gripping when read this way.
We read a lot. After all, there was almost no radio, no television, no mall, and very few other kids to play with at Kivuvu. I read anything and everything, whether I was interested in the subject or not. Reading has been a refuge from the world as well as opening up new vistas.
Our bookshelves were full. The ones I remember right now:
Encyclopedia Britannica – a whole set! I read from entry to entry in order. I did not get all the way through although that was a goal.
Several dictionaries, including the huge heavy one with the most obscure words. We used that one for Scrabble. Dictionaries were frequently consulted in our house, for all kinds of reasons. I also used them as reading material. Whenever there wasn’t anything else to read, there was always the dictionary! I still enjoy entomology and love trying to figure out the roots of words.
A set of Fairy books by Andrew Lang, from Dover Children’s Classics.
Indaba, my Children by Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa. Truly a must-read in African oral history and story.
Several volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.
I’m sure there were some Bibles and inspirational works, probably also a history book or two. Dad’s office had quite a few shelves of medical books.
There were a couple cookbooks that got regular use – the Joy of Cooking, and Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book. We had many difficulties with shortages of one thing or another and the Joy of Cooking always came through. I learned to bake from the Cooky Book (although we always spelled it "cookie"). My specialty? Spritz cookies!
One favorite pastime of mine was browsing the most recent Wards and Sears catalogs. I spent many hours furnishing my dream room and outfitting myself with new cool clothes. Those catalogs were really our only contact with fashion. We did get National Geographic magazine once in a while when it didn't get stolen from the post but that wasn't too helpful for current trends.
Once I got to boarding school in Kinshasa, the library at TASOK opened up a much broader world to me. There were hundreds of books, all of which should be read! The librarian gave me a list of books that should be read before college – I think there were about 400 or so – and I methodically read through the entire list of classics before graduation from high school.
In this library I found a GREAT treasure – J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit. I devoured that book and The Lord of the Rings when it came out in paperback a couple years later during our furlough in 1969. Those characters (particularly Frodo) are part of my psyche.
Another favorite pastime in the TASOK library was reading magazines. There were many back issues of various strange subjects (or at least, strange to be at TASOK!). I know more about horse breeds, horse racing, ballet, farming, and fashion because of some kind soul’s donation to the library.
Back to the photo for a moment: check out that wheelbarrow! The steel wheel looks home-made to me. Also, I love the broken rib on the umbrella, carefully placed so that the rain wouldn’t fall on Dan’s book – only his back. In the background, you can see the church, which looks freshly painted. There are young mango and avocado trees planted along the semi-circular drive that passed the church and our “front” door. Actually, we used the door on the other side of the house much more, and considered that our front door.
The missionary houses (and the church) at Kivuvu were, and still are located at the top of a small hill. Our views from the hill were beautiful, and the location was more likely to experience breezes too. We also had many thunderstorms and the hill seemed to attract lightning. (In a later post about storms, I’ll tell the story of the Night the Lightning Bolt Struck the Church.) One of the things that contributed to the view was the silhouette of the Bangu, an uplifted plateau that was just to the southwest of us.
I don’t think I ever heard another name for the formation. The slopes are very steep, and there are several waterfalls including one we called the Vampa, with pools of beautifully cool water. The photo – taken early in the rainy season I’d say, from the color of the lamb’s tail grass in the foreground – is a somewhat romantic view of the mountain, with fog sliding off the slopes.
The top of the Bangu was much less populated than the area around is, and consequently much more forested. There were rumors of large antelope up there, a lion, perhaps even an elephant. Who knows? I only went to the top twice, once on foot and once by Land Rover. Dad had a survey trip (in which he and several staff members from Kivuvu and IME would go to a village and look over the population for leprosy) and the family went along. What I remember most about that trip was the wonder that the local kids showed when they saw my little sister, blond and pale-skinned as she was. They had never seen a little white kid!
As I said earlier, there were waterfalls to be visited. Getting to the Vampa was quite a hike. First we had to drive to the edge of the river. That took maybe 30-45 minutes. We had to take all food and water with us, as the water was not to be trusted for drinking. The next stage was to cross the river, which was maybe 30 feet across. There was a narrow foot bridge that required climbing up a handmade ladder made from small tree trunks with narrow planks fastened to them at uneven intervals. Once up the ladder, then there was the bridge. About two planks wide, with guide/hand-holds made of vine, it made for an interesting crossing. Sometimes a plank was missing; sometimes the vines were not sturdy. The brown water of the river was only about 10 feet below and looked most uninviting. At the other end of the bridge a similar ladder allowed you back down to the ground, which was best done by “walking” down it like steps, instead of turning around as you might normally expect.
My favorite part of the walk to the Vampa was the mango forest. Someone had planted hundreds of mango trees in a grid – who knows when or why. The project was long abandoned but it made for nice shady walking with a path that rolled up and down the humps made by the tree roots. I think of it as being dark and cool and mysterious, smelling of ripe and rotting mango – and full of snakes.
The Vampa falls were designated as the lower and upper falls. The lower falls were a much shorter trip – maybe an hour walk from the river. Scrambling over the rocks and playing in the clear, cold water was fun. The valley rang with our shouts and laughter as we jumped from the edge of a cascade into the pool below, or slid down the smooth rock slide to the bottom of the upper falls. Swimming here was a relief from the heat and humidity of the rainy season and we relished it!
Once, Garcia (our gardener, previously mentioned here) and Pedro, our houseboy, went with my brother George and I for the strenuous hike to the very top of the plateau. I do not recall who else was with us. What I do remember is the struggle to get up the steep rocky path – I was never the most athletic or fit kid – and even worse, the trip down. My knees were water, my thighs on fire. A brutal hike. On that same trip, I fell on the final ladder, putting my leg between the slats and deeply bruising my shin. Garcia and Pedro started laughing as I started to tear up and though I knew why, it still felt cruel. (One was supposed to laugh at pain or fear, to keep the bad spirits away.) I had a knot on that shin for years afterwards.
On another occasion, I was walking with Dr. and Mrs. Frazier, running up and down the small hummocks in the path. Serious miscalculation caused me to land on my left knee resulting in a deep jagged gash. It took weeks to heal. That scar still reminds me to pay attention on uneven ground!
This post is mostly about the continuing presence of Congo
in our family life.I
spent the most formative years of my childhood in Africa – from age 5 to age
17, with a couple years of furlough back at a place in the States called “home”
that never was actually home. Little bits of Congo are scattered all over my life, underpinning my decisions, coloring my outlook. Surely everyone's childhood stays with them in such ways.I still carry apoem in my wallet that I wrote while
suffering severe homesickness during a Stateside furlough… “home, I long to go
home, back to the Congo”.Africa truly
never leaves the soul.
So what does all that have to do with hats?I’ll show you!We have two very broad-brimmed hats made of
some kind of fiber, with a few purple bands decorating the weave.These hats were acquired at some point in
Kivuvu – possibly brought to the back door by a vendor. There often was someone
at the back door, with live mice in woven traps for our pet mongoose, or carvings,
or vegetables, a giant stalk of bananas, or… hats.The hats made for wonderful child portraits.Here, my little sister Sara gives us such a
Next, my brother Dan, a bit more thoughtful:
And finally, my brother George and his
fellow adventurer Tommy, determined!
Note the slingshot around George’s neck, the
dirt and scrapes on both boys, the general lack of decent footwear.These guys were heading out to the wild bush! The
big hat was all part of the package.
Forty years later, more or less, our family was together
again for a Thanksgiving celebration at my sister’s place. The Congo hats came out again, to be
savored and played with.I took a deep
sniff of the brim, and thought I smelled a bit of Congo still in the fibers.Those hats traveled with us from Congo to
Hawaii to Pennsylvania to Maryland, and are part of our family heritage. They
may not lastanother forty years, but I’m
glad we still have them now.
Sara is still has her charming smile,
George still has a slingshot at the ready,
Dan is still pensive.
But we still get goofy,
and hide behind the brim,
with smiles all around.
The next generation likes the hats too!
I'm so glad we have each other to share those memories. When we get together it is so much fun to tell the stories, to hear new tales, to remember the good times and the bad. Our family was hardly perfect - still isn't - but that shared experience means so much to me. No one else knows quite what it was like to be us, then.
The rainy season at Kivuvu was eagerly anticipated, and the annual flight of termites confirmed that the rains had truly come. These termites lived in great colonies underground and in mounds. When a good soaking rain came, the insects would begin to come up out of the ground and begin their mating flight. Our proximity to the cattle ranch probably helped, because there were a great many established termite mounds in the fields behind the house. Sometimes the flights were just a few insects, sometimes thousands. Although we did try to fool the termites by saturating the ground with the hose, they didn’t fall for the trick very often.
When wispy columns wavered in the afternoon light, we would spring into action. Flying ants, as we called them, are very good eating! A large bag or net was placed over the exit hole, and as many as possible were captured.Next, we carefully disengaged them from the netting, and pulled the wings off the ones who had not already shed their wings when caught. Wings are not very tasty.
The more adventurous among us would eat them raw and alive (my brothers liked to do this) but the rest of us would take the catch to Pedro (our houseboy) to fry them. Hot, salty, crispy, they were deliciously savory! Our diet was fairly low in protein and fat, which is probably why they tasted so good. They might compare in flavor to the fattest, crispiest part of bacon.
I'm so glad that my dad took time to document this annual event. It looks to me as though these were taken in about 1971 or 1972, since Sara is maybe 5 in the picture. I don't remember her having braids very often so it's nice to see those!